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Anti-inflammatory diet for healthy eating?

By Anna Sayburn
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Inflammation happens naturally in your body as part of the healing process, so it is not always a bad thing.

If you bang your thumb with a hammer, the tissues get inflamed locally. Your thumb becomes red and swollen, whilst immune and repair cells rush to the area to contain and repair the damage. Once the damage has healed, the inflammation goes away. The same thing happens if part of your body gets infected by a virus or by bacteria.

Some health conditions cause a chronic, long-lasting inflammation in the body. This background inflammation can affect joints, damage blood vessels and cause disability. Arthritis, lung and heart disease, and immune conditions where the body turns against itself (called 'autoimmune' conditions, such as lupus or multiple sclerosis) can all cause long-lasting inflammation.

There are a number of drugs that can be used to reduce inflammation and the pain that goes with it. Steroids may be used to control asthma, and anti-inflammatory drugs can provide effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

In recent years, there's been interest in whether what we eat can influence inflammation in the body. We looked at the claims being made and the evidence for them.

What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

There is no such thing as a standard, well-recognised anti-inflammatory diet, although there are plenty of websites advertising supplements and information that claim they can help you achieve one. The concept of an anti-inflammatory diet is based on the idea that some foods raise levels of inflammation in the body, while others calm it down. So is there evidence that this can happen?

Dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson Dr Gaynor Bussell says the research is in its early stages. "I think the answer is yes, but it is quite a new way of thinking.

"We know for example that being overweight and obese, and having some disease states, raises inflammation levels in the body. We can measure C-Reactive Protein (CRP), which can indicate inflammation, and see that people carrying extra weight are in a pro-inflammatory state. A junk food diet can raise the level of inflammation," says Dr Bussell.

Trans fats found in certain fast food and fried goods, are thought to cause inflammation and raise the chances of heart disease. For this reason trans fats have been almost completely removed from the UK diet. The highest source of trans fats in our current diet is in doner kebabs and fried chicken. Higher levels of glucose in the bloodstream, such as in diabetes, can also raise inflammation levels, so keeping a healthy weight and eating regular balanced meals throughout the day is less likely to cause inflammation than a diet heavy on sugary drinks and simple carbohydrates like white flour.

"A low GI diet can lower markers of inflammation," says Dr Bussell.

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